The Big Sky is anxious to light up the scoreboard once again this season, perhaps as a … running-style conference?
Sure, that sounds backward from everything you likely have come to know about the Big Sky and its high-powered offenses, but for once, the 12-team conference isn’t returning some of the elite passers in FCS college football.
It was evident at the Big Sky Kickoff media day on Monday in Spokane, Washington, where the top three spots in the preseason coaches and media polls were tight: Montana was selected as the preseason favorite in each poll, with the conference’s two-time defending champion Sacramento State second and 2021 national runner-up Montana State third among the coaches, and their two spots reversed among the media.
“I believe we have a really good football team, and I’m pleased to see other coaches and the media agree with that assessment,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said.
“It’s nice to have that reinforcement, but now we have to go execute our plan to win.”
The Griz, who went 10-3 and advanced to the FCS quarterfinals last year, will have a new season-opening starting quarterback for the third straight full campaign, either redshirt sophomore Kris Brown – last year’s primary backup – or San Diego State transfer Lucas Johnson.
Sac State quarterback Jake Dunniway, who splits playing time with Asher O’Hara, finished third in the Big Sky with 2,576 passing yards last season. That’s the fewest for the leading Big Sky returnee after a full season (not following the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign) since 2007, and the next-highest returnee in passing yards is Northern Arizona’s RJ Martinez, who had 1,713 yards in eight games and was the conference’s freshman of the year.
Montana State led the Big Sky with seven selections on the preseason all-conference team, and that included Tommy Mellott, who didn’t become the team’s starting QB until the Bobcats’ playoff run. He literally took the job and ran with it in four postseason games, gaining nearly as many rushing yards (422) as passing yards (472). The sophomore is seeking to improve on a 52.8 completion percentage last season.
Among the QB changes is Eastern Washington replacing 3 1/2-year starter Eric Barriere. While passing for 5,070 yards and 46 touchdown last season, he became the seventh QB in Big Sky history to receive the Walter Payton Award as the national offensive player of the year. Longtime backup Gunner Talkington will seek to replace Barriere.
But the quarterbacks don’t suggest the entire story. The conference is returning its two 1,000-yard rushers last year, Montana State’s Isaiah Ifanse (1,623) and Northern Arizona’s Kevin Daniels (1,146), as well as eight of the 11 players who surpassed 500 yards on the ground.
Ifanse leads active FCS players in career rushing yards with 3,461, and UC Davis’ Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. (3,435) – who was tabbed the Big Sky preseason offensive MVP – and Weber State’s Josh Davis (3,165) are second and third, respectively, on the list. Also back are Montana’s Marcus Knight, who had 1,030 rushing yards and scored an FCS-high 25 touchdowns in 2019, but missed last season due to a knee injury, and Elijah Dotson, a 1,000-yard rusher at Sacramento State in 2018 who’s made a transfer across the conference to Northern Colorado.
Montana linebacker Patrick O’Connell, who was third in the Buck Buchanan Award voting for national defensive player of the year, was voted the Big Sky’s preseason defensive MVP. (Watch the 2021 FCS National Awards)
Big Sky Conference Preseason Polls
1. Montana (2021: 10-3, 6-2), 111 points (3 first-place votes)
2. Sacramento State (9-3, 8-0), 110 (4)
3. Montana State (12-3, 7-1), 109 (5)
4. Weber State (6-5, 5-3), 84
5. UC Davis (8-4, 5-3), 82
6. Eastern Washington (10-3, 6-2), 76
7. Northern Arizona (5-6, 4-4), 62
8. Idaho (4-7, 3-5), 45
9. Portland State (5-6, 4-4), 42
10. Cal Poly (2-9. 1-7), 33
T11. Idaho State (1-10, 1-7), 19
T11. Northern Colorado (3-8, 2-6), 19
Preseason Offensive MVP
Ulonzo Gilliam Jr., RB, UC Davis
Preseason Defensive MVP
Patrick O’Connell, LB, Montana
1. Montana (10-3, 6-2), 356 points (14 first-place votes)
2. Montana State (12-3, 7-1), 352 (13)
3. Sacramento State (9-3, 8-0), 335 (4)
4. Weber State (6-5, 5-3), 261
5. UC Davis (8-4, 5-3), 255 (1)
6. Eastern Washington (10-3, 6-2), 236
7. Northern Arizona (5-6, 4-4), 191
8. Portland State (5-6, 4-4), 146
9. Idaho (4-7, 3-5), 142
10. Cal Poly (2-9. 1-7), 85
11. Northern Colorado (3-8, 2-6), 71
12. Idaho State (1-10, 1-7), 66
(Big Sky’s two new head coaches are at rival schools)